First woman to have run Boston Marathon speaks to Wellesley students

By ANNE LIU ’17

Sports and Wellness Editor

On Tuesday, April 15, Roberta Louise “Bobbi” Gibb spoke to Wellesley students about her experiences as the first woman to have run the entire Boston Marathon in 1966, winning the 1966, 1967 and 1968 pre-sanctioned era competitions.

Gibb grew up in Boston, Massachusetts during the 1940s and attended Tufts University, where she would run her eight mile daily commute in Red Cross nurses’ sneakers because there were no women’s athletic shoes available at the time.

Fifty years ago, the idea that women could not physiologically run marathon distances was a widely held belief. In 1966, all the female pioneer runners ran in male division races and were deemed unsanctioned athletes.

When Gibb thought to run in the Boston Marathon, race director Will Cloney informed her that women were physiologically incapable of running such lengths and under the Amateur Athletic Union guidelines women were not allowed to run over a mile and a half. Instead of faltering, Gibb decided to run without permission. She believed that successfully running the race did not simply symbolize personal achievement, but rather would spotlight a far more important issue — gender inequality.

“At that moment, I knew that I was running for much more than my own personal challenge. I was running to change the way people think. There existed a false belief that was keeping half the world’s population from experiencing all of life,” Gibb said.

On April 19, 1966 Gibb arrived at the starting line in Hopkinton, where she dressed in men’s wear and hid in the bushes until the starting gun fired. When half of the pack had already started, she joined her fellow racers on her historic run. With the encouragement of the male runners, Gibb continued the race, inching ever closer to the finish line and calling increasing public attention to her efforts.

“We scanned face after face in breathless anticipation until just ahead of her, through the excited crowd, a ripple of recognition shot through the lines, and we cheered as we never had before. We let out a roar that day, sensing that this woman had done more than just break the gender barrier in a famous race,” said Diana Chapman Walsh ’66, former president of Wellesley College of her senior year experience.

Governor of Massachusetts John Volpe stood waiting to shake Gibb’s hand as she crossed the finish line in three hours, 21 minutes and 40 seconds. Gibb completed the race ahead of two thirds of the pack and thus proved to the world that women could in fact successfully run more than a mile and a half competitively. Numerous editorials including Sports Illustrated and Record American covered her historic triumph over the previous gender barriers.

The following year, Gibb returned and ran the marathon again in three hours, 27 minutes and 17 seconds. In 1968, she finished the marathon for the third time in three hours and 30 minutes, still the first among a growing number of women who followed Gibb in running the marathon. By 1972, the Boston Athletic Association officially sanctioned the women’s event.

In 1996, at the 100th Anniversary of the Boston Marathon and the 30th Anniversary of Gibb’s first run, the Boston Athletic Association officially recognized Gibb’s 1966, 1967 and 1968 wins in the female athletes division.

Along with Gibb’s love for running, she pursued a family and a career: She received a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of California in La Jolla and proceeded to study epistemology and color vision at MIT, all while pursuing law and raising her children.

While she continues to maintain a career in art and writes on various topics including economics and spirituality, Gibb most recently joined the effort to study neurodegenerative diseases in hopes of finding a cure. She currently splits her time between her hometown of Boston and San Diego, where her art studio is located.

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